Sharing Our Stories: Alumnae Stories from the Pandemic


karen torian 73Karen McLane Torian, Class of 1973, is a former member of the AADC Board of Directors, a past chair of the AADC Black Alumnae Network Jewel Plummer Sisters Conference and a consistent donor to the AADC. Here is her story, shared on June 26, 2020.

I am the executive director of a faith-based non-profit organization that operates its programs in space provided by the Shiloh Baptist Church of Plainfield, New Jersey. We distribute groceries to approximately 150 families and serve 800 hot meals to individuals monthly. We also provide clothing through a program we call the Clothes Closet and personal products, depending upon availability, in our “Mall.”

In early March COVID 19 was taking its toll on the New York metropolitan area. This deadly respiratory disease impacted the elderly, especially those with underlying chronic health conditions. This was troublesome because our all-volunteer staff is comprised of mostly retirees, many of whom have underlying health conditions.

Shiloh was shutting down as required by Governor Murphy. Questions arose: Would Shiloh allow us to continue to operate our programs in their facilities? Would people still continue to volunteer? At the same time, Plainfield was quickly becoming a hot spot for COVID 19. How could we protect ourselves from becoming infected from this rapidly spreading virus?

We were so concerned about our volunteers’ safety that initially we were going to close for a couple of weeks until the pandemic passed. But we decided that if we closed our doors, the most vulnerable and needy people in the Plainfield would suffer without having access to food. I am pleased to report that we decided to keep our programs open.

In the past as we did in-take, we spent time talking to the families. We got to know them on a personal level. The families would have access to what we called the clothes closet and the mall. It was like a Saturday afternoon shopping excursion. The children would pick out toys and books if we had them.

Previously, in the soup kitchen, people were seated at tables and served their meals. Volunteers took the time to talk to them.

We have changed our method of operations significantly. We have reduced the number of volunteers who participate in our programs. Our volunteers must sign in the date, times and places where they work within the program area they worked. In the event that someone does test positive, our non-profit can now trace their contacts. Volunteers are now subject to temperature checks. Personal protective gear such as gloves and masks are required.

We currently distribute groceries but only three people at a time are allowed to enter the building. We encourage only one family member to come in to pick up the food. The family member must wear a mask and is instructed to sanitize their hands before being allowed to pick up the bags of groceries.

In March, few families came to our grocery distribution program. We assumed that they weren’t aware that we were open because a number of other similar programs in Plainfield ceased operations. They may have gotten food for their children from the Plainfield school system’s program or they were just too afraid to be in places where there would be groups of people.

In April and May we were inundated with new families needing groceries. We have families coming from Piscataway, North Brunswick, North Plainfield, Westfield and Scotch Plains. No hungry family is turned away. Ironically, a number of families who participated in our program in the past have not returned. It’s hard to recognize people with masks on but when we see the families that we have helped in the past we always greet them like long-lost family members.

One Saturday we had an elderly woman who came to pick up groceries for herself and a friend who was sick. The grocery bags were heavy and we knew that she had to walk a distance to get home. One of the volunteers offered to call a taxi and pay for it out of her own pocket. As it turned out, another volunteer ended up driving the woman home. This is an example of the commitment and sacrifice that these volunteers have to helping.

The numbers of people taking advantage of the soup kitchen have risen slightly. Most of these patrons walk to the kitchen. They are now met at the door and are handed a takeaway meal. We miss talking to the patrons and wonder if we will ever be able to establish the kind of human contact that we had before. How are our families making it through this time of COVID?

We are our brother’s keeper “…for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” Matthew 25:35

Note: Plainfield is a COVID 19 hotspot. As Memorial Day 2020 neared, Plainfield had over 1,600 reported cases of COVID 19 and 95 fatalities.

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